The History of Autism Spectrum Disorders since 1900

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The History of the Early Days of Autism

A Swiss psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler is credited with coming up with the term autism in 1911. The words autism and autistic both originate from the Greek word, autos, which means self. Autism was originally a description of the signs of schizophrenia and was used in reference to people who seemed self-absorbed and showed little interest in interacting with others.

Leo Kanner is recorded as a pioneer in the history of autism spectrum disorders. An Austrian psychiatrist and physician, he studied at the University of Berlin before emigrating to the United States in 1924. In 1930 he was selected to develop a child psychiatry service in John Hopkins Hospital. After a number of years of observations and research, he published a paper in 1943 that discussed autism in childhood.

The History of the Autism Spectrum

The term, autism spectrum disorders, evolved to describe a number of conditions that share similar symptoms. These conditions range from low to high-functioning autism and include the following disorders.

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of high-functioning autism. In 1944, an Austrian pediatrician by the name of Hans Asperger wrote about a group of children he called autistic psychopaths. Their behavior patterns were remarkably similar to the children Leo Kanner described but they had different problems with language. Asperger recorded that the children spoke like little grown-ups. He also mentioned that their motor activity was more clumsy and different to normal children.

Rett’s syndrome is named after an Austrian pediatrician, Dr Andreas Rett. In 1954, Dr Rett noticed two girls in his waiting room making the same repetitive hand-wringing motions. This caught his attention and he compared their clinical and developmental histories and discovered they were very similar. A further investigation revealed he had several other girls in his care with similar behavior patterns. After travelling through Europe and finding further cases, Dr Rett published his findings in a number of German medical journals in 1966. He later published a description of the disease in English in 1977 but little attention was paid to his findings at that time.

Childhood disintegrative disorder was originally referred to as Dementia Infantilis by Theodore Heller in 1908. This Austrian special educator described the condition as being the sudden loss of language and social skills by young children. It was referred to as Heller’s syndrome for many years but when autism was discovered, the medical profession realized that childhood disintegrative disorder fitted into the spectrum.

The History of Autism Spectrum Disorders over the Last Thirty Years

A closer look at the history of autism spectrum disorders shows that great progress has been made over the last few decades. This is partly attributed to the spread of information through the Internet. Some significant events, including the following, mark the increase of understanding over this time:

  • In the ’70s, the first special education classes were started for autistic children.
  • The work of Hans Asperger did not become known until the end of the 1980 when his book was translated into English. The term Asperger’s syndrome was first used in 1981by Lorna Wing, a British psychiatrist who specialized in autism spectrum disorders.
  • The Erica Foundation in Sweden started education and therapy for psychotic children in the beginning of the ’80s.
  • Medical experts refuted the theory that autism was caused by cold frigid mothers and bad parenting. Instead progress was made in defining it as a neurological disorder or a chromosomal aberration such as fragile X-chromosome.

The treatment of autism has made rapid progress over recent years and public awareness is much greater than it was a few years ago. The outlook is bright for the future and children with autism now have a great chance of leading a fulfilled and happy life.